A few years ago, I was in the second-to-front row at the Hordern Pavilion, waiting to see the British boy band One Direction. I was there in my official capacity as a reviewer, and to be honest, feeling more than a little awkward. Concerned mothers kept shooting me strange looks; glances that seemed to say, “Why are you, an unshaven, sweaty, 20-something-year-old man here at a gig that is clearly designed for pre-teens? And why are you holding a notepad and pen? Are you some kind of pervert?”

Feeling embarrassed, I tried to shoot back my own complicated facial correspondence: my eyebrows shot up, indicating warm surprise (“What am I doing here? That’s a good question that I’m afraid I can’t really answer myself!”); my lips twisted into a faltering, self-aware smile (designed to convey a very specific kind of happiness – the happiness of someone who is gently amused to find themselves in an odd situation rather than the happiness of a person who is pleased to be surrounded by pre-teens); and my eyelids squinted a little (to make my expression sillier, a method of indicating to the concerned mothers that I waspu aware that all the things my face was currently doing were y’know, a little odd.)

I must have looked like I was having a stroke. The mothers, for their part, were either utterly unable to translate my facial Morse code or were simply unimpressed by its message. They looked away, bringing their daughters in a little closer. I didn’t really understand what the problem was – the pre-teens themselves never seemed particularly bothered by me, especially not when night fell and the evening’s entertainment began.

The proceedings kicked off with a bizarre dance ritual. The onstage jumbo screens came to life, a haphazardly selected playlist of classic ’80s and ’90s hits began to blare from a nearby speaker system, and the crowd, eerily starting to resemble a German propaganda film from the ’30s, rose to its feet in one coordinated gesture and began to dance.

The ‘Macarena’ blurred into ‘Barbie Girl’. A six-year-old, dressed from head to toe in One Direction merch, began to cry, put off by the sheer ungodly volume Aqua’s kitsch classic was being blasted at. And the mothers, grinning broadly, started swinging their arms, while the fathers sprinkled around the crowd ogled the sight appreciatively, dusty old sneakers tapping into the floor.

It was a weird trip – one that only got weirder when The Boys themselves took to the stage a little later. Firstly, the members of One Direction didn’t really seem like boys, although that was what the crowd excitedly called them in the lead-up to the show. They were men, many of them heavily tattooed, all of them lean and muscular in that way that seems committee-designed to attract everyone and intimidate no-one; lean in a way that encouraged the single dads to think to themselves, “Yeah, I could take that lot on,” while also privately admitting that it was true The Boys looked pretty damn good in their tight tees.

In that way, they exuded that weird force that is seemingly becoming more and more popular these days: sex appeal presented as coy authenticity. We were meant to desire One Direction – to find their smouldering gazes and carefully selected outfits attractive, not to mention their enthusiastic dance moves and that weird thing Niall Horan did to his mic stand – but for their part, The Boys went to great lengths to appear unaware of our gaze. They outsourced the lust to us. It was on us as an audience if we found them attractive. Like the most demure of romantic objects, they merely smiled at our drooling, and fluttered their gazes down to the floor.

I just stared at her, eyes wide, screaming rather than speaking. ‘What the fuck is going on?’

Secondly, the screaming really was something else. It didn’t stop for the duration of the concert, and was one of the loudest things I have ever heard. It really awakens something primal in you, to be surrounded by that many people howling. Although you logically understand that everyone is just screaming in passionate tribute to The Boys, your inner survival mechanism kicks in and you become unnervingly convinced that there is a predator nearby – that all the screaming and carrying on means some giant fanged beast is going to hop out from behind that merchandise stall over there and tear you asunder.

And thirdly, perhaps most pertinently, I couldn’t shake off the eeriness of the spectacle; couldn’t comprehend the unrelenting bigness of it all. After all, you don’t need to have studied much history to be a little bit afraid of aesthetics. Our understanding of dictators and fascistic, state-organised mind control is deeply tied up in images of mass demonstrations and towering, blown-up visions of human faces. ‘Nuremberg’ was the word that kept flashing through my head, and although I tried to shove it down, it kept bopping right back up.

I couldn’t really comprehend what I was being sold either, which only made the experience that much more unnerving. Who were these pop propagandists, and what did they want from me? They didn’t seem to have any of the divine blandness that defined vaguely Christian acts like The Jonas Brothers and pre-weed Miley Cyrus, so I wasn’t worried they were trying to fill us all up with the word of the Lord.

But they were far from forces of corruption either – despite their outsourcing of attraction (or perhaps because of it?), they seemed about as malicious as a litter of newborn kittens. If they weren’t selling God and they weren’t selling the devil, what the hell was going on?

I broke out in a cold sweat. I always freak out when I feel like something big and expensive is trying to get my attention – I can’t shake the feeling that I am being sold to, or that someone I have never met is clandestinely trying to convince me to do something that will probably bring me into harm’s way. And when the bad thing does happen, it will be my fault: I will have walked into the trouble willingly, eyes wide open.

I wiped away a whole slick palmful of sweat. A concerned mother was looking at me, even more horrified than she had been before the gig started. By this stage, having totally abandoned my attempts at facial Morse code, I just stared at her, eyes wide, screaming rather than speaking. What the fuck is going on? my eyes said. What the fuck are we actually watching?

I glanced back over to the stage and sat for the remaining few hours in stunned, horrified silence. One Direction never once seemed human to me. Not when they descended down the long walkway that stretched the length of the Hordern and began to shake their rear-ends for the gasping ecstasy of the audience. Not when Harry Styles, the long-haired Lothario who had always been my favourite, almost tripped over – thrown off by an excessive bout of boogieing – and his face flushed with a concoction of surprise and embarrassment.

And certainly not when The Boys returned for their second encore, pyrotechnics lighting up the stage behind them, and thanked the audience for always being by their side. There was not an ounce of sincerity in a second of it, I thought. I might as well have sat there and watched a cast of dancing mechanical marionettes.

Needless to say, the pre-teens around me had an entirely different experience. By the time the concert wrapped up, many of the audience members were literally speechless. A strange silence descended over the place. Even those who were talking did so quietly, shaking their heads as though they had just been present for some kind of holy moment, which as far as they were concerned, they totally had.

“I think that was the best night of my life,” said a girl in a One Direction T-shirt to her mother, her voice hushed with reverie.

A younger girl nearby overheard the comment, tugged the stranger in the tee and nodded solemnly.

“Me too,” said the younger girl.

That was all to be expected, right? They were only kids – surely they had been won over by the lights and the spectacle and the noise of it all rather than any perceived sense that they had personally connected with The Boys. Surely they were responding to the gig’s very surface layer; not the weirdness that lay below?

But no. They felt – each of them felt – that they had somehow communicated with their idols. They said as much, all of them convinced that Harry or Liam or Niall had looked right at them; that The Boys had singled them out, and were performing just for them.

“I can’t believe I was so close to them,” one 13-year-old said, breathily. “They were right there – they were actually looking at me.”

It freaked me out that I could have seen something so wholly different to the rest of the crowd. Where they had seen intimacy, I had seen an extravagant display of depersonalisation. Where they had seen connection, I had seen coldness. And where they had seen the flesh-and-blood ciphers of their dreams, I had seen a bunch of overworked and overstretched 20-somethings, all looking out at their audience with glazed eyes.

Hearing But Not Knowing: The Problem Of Pop’s Personhood

“What blessed justice it would be if …. it became common for audiences to regularly fling pies in the faces of performers whom they thought were coming on with a load of bullshit. Because the top rockers have a mythic aura around them and that’s a basically unhealthy state of things … that infests “our” culture from popstars to politics.” – Lester Bangs, Of Pop And Pies And Fun

How can we ever love a musician when we don’t even know them? That is the paradigm of pop. How can we ever pretend that listening to a Taylor Swift song – particularly one that has been actively designed to appeal to the largest number of consumers as possible – somehow teaches us anything about Taylor Swift herself?

There is an old philosophical conundrum called the problem of the person. It goes as follows: a human can give the sum total of their being to an action, but the product of their labour can never be seen as the sum total of them. So even if Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or Robert Plant or whoever throws every single element of their personhood at a song – if they drench it with their hopes and dreams and fears – it can never be read as a complete translation of their being. It is of them. It’s not them.

Even in the parallel universe where Katy Perry just wrote and released a 48-hour long a cappella dirge in which she listed every single one of the joys and concerns rattling through her, we would still be no closer to knowing Katy Perry. Some part of a person is always lost in the act of making music. And as nice as it might be to imagine that songs are some kind of conduit, the contact only goes one way – and even then, it does so messily, losing traction the further that it has to travel.

Of course, something additional is ruined by the act of listening too. Audiences misinterpret and appropriate, migrating ever further away from the flesh-and-blood musicians who kick the whole process off. There is a reason that some of the most famous bands in contemporary musical history have felt misunderstood by their audiences.

Kurt Cobain so hated the jocks who thought his music was a good soundtrack for fucking and fighting that he called them out on the acerbic ‘In Bloom’. Randy Newman’s satire-soaked ‘Rednecks’ was adopted by the very crowd it aimed to make fun of. And ‘Born In The USA’, a tune long championed by flag-waving conservatives as an unabashed blast of patriotism, was openly described by Bruce Springsteen as anti-war in message.

Musical messages only survive when they are co-opted. You can’t intimately know what Prince’s exact intention was when he wrote ‘Purple Rain’ any more than you can track every single one of your lover’s thoughts – any more than you can anyone with anything resembling certainty, least of all a stranger.

So, to make the music work for you, you reshape it – pull it and prod it until it means something; until it speaks to the private thoughts you don’t share with another soul – and then you say you understand. You say, Kurt Cobain speaks to me. You say, Daniel Johnston, a man I’ve never met, somehow knows exactly what I felt after my last break-up. You say, Harry Styles was singing that song just for me.

None of this is a bad thing – not at all. Indeed, it is the great beauty of music that messages can be co-opted and redefined in the first place; that there is something that makes people similar, underneath all the things that set them apart. But it just means that even after years of obsessing over your favourite artist – after years of studying their every lyric and collecting their records – you know them no better than the mailman who once got them to sign for a parcel.

That’s why we read interviews. We like to actively look to see if a musician’s singing voice is different from the one they use to speak: whether Leonard Cohen was as saintly as his songs, or if Glenn Danzig is as terrifying as his records. And we love the stories that imply there is a connection – tales about tattoo-saturated Danzig poring over his extensive collection of books on the occult, tales about Cohen writing beautiful, soul-searching letters to a lover about to pass away – while we are thrown by those that imply that it is all some kind of weird, capitalistic act.

A few years ago, for example, I got the chance to interview one of my heroes – a musical legend from the mid-’60s whose every work had altered and enhanced my being. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that he was responsible for the person that I was – that the viciousness of his music had nurtured my taste for the weird and the off-centre, and that the twinkling, obsidian black humour of his songwriting had given me my joyous cynicism about the world.

There is a reason that some of the most famous bands in contemporary musical history have felt misunderstood by their audiences.

And then I spoke to him, and he was a dick. He did not care for my analysis of his work; he was not interested in anything that I had to say about it. He seemed bored by me – or worse, like he actively disliked me. And what had I done but tell him how much I loved what he had done for me? What had I done but try to build on that connection I felt his work had already established?

It was a good year or so before I could listen to his music again, and even then things were still weird. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had married the love of my life, only to a few years later discover I had accidentally married their identical twin instead. The music still sounded the same, but it was different, and it would never go back to the way it had been before. All the things I loved about the artist suddenly seemed like a false face designed to trick me into shelling out my cash.

Music is always for sale. Art is a trade-off, and musicians give us their work so we can give them praise and affection. And then when we discover the artificiality of all that – when we see that musicians are not who their art says they are, and that there is some kind of transaction going on – part of the illusion is forever sullied.

Altering Personhood: How Harry Styles Found His ‘True’ Voice

The cracks had been there for a while. You could see them in 2013’s This Is Us, an inside look at the One Direction machine directed by Morgan ‘Super Size Me’ Spurlock of all people. Sure, The Boys had tried their hardest to project a kind of unified, grinning, wholesome front. And Spurlock backed them up too, splicing in long scenes in which the band members all joke about backstage, gently punching each other across the shoulders like the world’s oldest friends.

But as single-minded as they pretended to be, it was clear they weren’t always on the same page. Zayn Malik, always the brooding outsider, seemed to be growing ever more surly. What with his Misfits T-shirts and his sleeve tattoos, he was ‘the punk one’ in a band that had no room for punk. At one point in This Is Us, he spat out the words “boy band” as though they were bloodied teeth.

So when the rift came, it was unsurprising that Malik was its instigator. He was the first to throw off the cowl of the boy band, and slunk away to give moody, maybe just ever-so-slightly whiny interviews with the media. He had never been allowed to grow a beard while in One Direction, he said. It wasn’t always easy for him to give his own creative input, he said. I’m a real artist now, he said.

Which only made it all the more confusing when Malik released his debut solo record, Mind Of Mine. The way he had been speaking to the press, one would have assumed he had a fiery death metal record up his sleeve – something truly subversive; the kind of mettle-testing work of art that the pop world would have no room for. Why else would anyone throw away a meal-ticket that could have kept them occupied for the rest of their life but to do the kind of thing they could never have otherwise done?

But Mind Of Mine, Malik’s 14-track collection of dreary EDM dribbles and undercooked pop choruses, was neither mettle-testing, nor fiery, nor even particularly challenging. The best songs followed the basic structure of One Direction’s most famous hits with the full-band pop experience swapped out for warbling electro. The worst sounded like an overambitious teenager trying to rip off The Weeknd.

It was baffling, and it resulted in the most cynical listeners crying foul play. Malik’s new music wasn’t actually edgy or daring, they said; it was just pretending to be, adopting the mantle like a model donning a far-out designer brand to shift a few more units. It was alternative in name only. It used the phrase ‘alternative’ as though it were a marketing term.

Which is the problem with pop music sometimes. Because it’s impossible for us to know our favourite artists in anything resembling an intimate manner, we can only ever guess how authentic they might be when they throw their creative left-turns.

When Miley Cyrus discards her shy country girl image in order to flower as a hip-hop-indebted, chemical-addled, off-the-wall banshee, how are we ever meant to know whether she is going for our wallets or if she is fulfilling some lifelong dream? When we don’t know who musicians are anyway, how are we meant to keep up with their authentic selves if they keep bloody changing?

Harry Styles sings about masturbation on his new solo album. He sings about drugs, too – equating his lover to a hit of something illicit on ‘Meet Me In The Hallway’, the album opener. And he generally does the swaggering, sultry thing that Zayn also did when freed from the One Direction beast, in that he suddenly abandons that ‘sexiness as wholesomeness’ thing and comes running at the listener, shirt buttons undone to his navel and his hand already beginning to undo his belt.

Which, on at least first listen, convinced me that he was being true to himself. This, I felt, was authenticity. I loved Harry Styles, and I loved it because it seemed to be full of Styles saying things he had not been able to say for years. This was the Harry that I had been looking for but couldn’t find all those years ago in the Hordern Pavilion.

But before long – perhaps on the third or fourth listen – I began to get that uneasy sense that Styles was trying to sucker me into something. Why was I leaping to the conclusion that it is inherently more honest to sing about sex and excess? What if some of these pop stars really do prefer innocent, wholesome prepubescent love over midnight trysts in a hotel room? What if Styles was more like the person he presented to the world when in One Direction – the quiet, unassuming, affable bloke – than this Caligula-esque peddler he now appeared to be?

I was being tricked by the melodies, I felt. Styles’ new record pays homage to Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Beck, Ryan Adams and even Sleater-Kinney: all bands I love. I thought he was trying to get into my crowd just as Zayn had tried to slip in with the EDM-lovers with Mind Of Mine; using the cosmetic elements of a genre to imply deep musical affinity with a scene.

And yet I was wrong again. Or, if not wrong, then overly cynical. We will never know who Harry Styles is, so it stands to reason that we will never know if he was more comfortable being the teen heartthrob or the idol of the indie pop scene. It’s entirely possible that he never really wanted to be either, and is merely very good at using himself to sell a whole lot of records. And it’s also possible that he always wanted to do both, and has merely evolved and changed over the years – as we all do.

This was the Harry that I had been looking for but couldn’t find all those years ago in the Hordern Pavilion.

But that unknowability doesn’t make Styles more alien. It makes him more human. He is an ever-shifting series of tastes, desires and motivating factors – and we are too. All that happens is that every once in a while, those two spinning wheels of wants and needs happen to come to rest on just about the same spot.

A few years back, the wholesome Styles – however he may have been motivated – synced up with an audience of pre-teens looking for exactly what he offered them. And now the new sexed-up Styles – whether he is chasing a pay cheque or not – has found a fresh crowd of 20-somethings more than willing to accept him.

So, who is Harry Styles? Harry Styles is not the Harry Styles who once dated Taylor Swift, or puked on the side of a highway. Harry Styles is not flesh and blood. Harry Styles is the electric thing that happens when his music comes in contact with the people listening to it.

And in that way, and for that reason, it doesn’t matter if he’s selling you something or not. What matters is the thing that happens when you press ‘play’ on a song written by a stranger and somehow encounter a little part of yourself, offered up, ready for you to take.

Harry Styles’ self-titled debut album is out now through Columbia/Sony.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine